Policing ard fheis uncertain despite Blair's MI5 concession

The failure of the DUP to commit to a timeframe for the formation of a power-sharing executive is threatening the planned Sinn Féin ard fheis on policing. By Frank Connolly


A decision by Sinn Féin to hold a special ard fheis on policing remains in the balance despite the latest conciliatory statements by the British government on the future role of the intelligence agency, MI5, in the North.

On Wednesday, 10 January, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, lodged a document in the House of Commons which promised that MI5 would have no role in civic policing following the formation of a devolved government in the North.

This promise is counter to an annex in the St Andrews Agreement which allowed for MI5 to engage members of the PSNI in its intelligence activities.
The role of MI5 is a major problem for Sinn Féin leaders in their efforts to deliver party support for the policing service.

Under the deal worked out between Tony Blair and Gerry Adams in recent weeks, any involvement by MI5 with the PSNI would be fully accountable to both the policing boards and the Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan. Although MI5 will continue to construct a new headquarters in Belfast, the agency will not have a central role with the police as earlier envisaged.

This concessison  was welcomed by Sinn Féin's policing spokesman Gerry Kelly as a significant breakthrough. However, it may not be enough to convince the party's ard comhairle to agree to convene an emergency ard fheis by the end of January, as earlier agreed.

“Unless there is a clear signal from the Democratic Unionist Party, even at this late stage, it may prove a step too far to call the ard fheis. This is because the agreement two weeks ago to call an ard fheis was based on an agreement that the DUP would state clearly that it, in turn, would agree to share power on 24 March,” a senior Sinn Féin spokesperson said.

“Instead, Ian Paisley has said the opposite and will agree no time scale for devolved government or the transfer of policing powers,” the spokesperson continued. “The basis on which Gerry Adams and the ard comhairle agreed to call the ard fheis no longer exists so now we need a new basis to proceed.”

Prominent DUP members, including Ian Paisley jnr and Jeffrey Donaldson, have said in recent days that the party wants devolved government. However, the DUP has not confirmed that it will follow the timetable for the formation of a powersharing executive on 24 March after elections to a new assembly and following Sinn Féin's endorsement of the PSNI. Neither has it agreed a timescale for the transfer of policing powers to the North by March 2008 as envisaged in the St Andrew's Agreement late last year.

If there is an ard fheis called after the ard comhairle deliberations on 13 January, it will hear further details of recent secret discussions between Sinn Féin and the British government. These include concessions over the future use of plastic bullets by the security forces in the North, the position of more than 100 republican activists or so-called OTRs (on the runs) who have been unable to return to the North and key changes to the administration of justice.

“There is no suggestion in any of this that Sinn Féin is about to recommend hugging the PSNI. We have said that we will endorse policing, courts and the rule of law and our deputy first minister will sign a pledge of office in this respect. But we will continue to demand a fully accountable civic police service, the truth about collusion between the RUC and loyalist death squads, and the removal of human rights abusers from the PSNI,” the spokesperson said.

While the ard comhairle must agree by a two-thirds majority to call an emeregency ard fheis, any motion put by Gerry Adams to the larger meeting can be passed by a simple majority.